If you’ve never been to Staithes – a little fishing port 11 miles north of Whitby – I recommend a visit. If you go, you will discover that you are not allowed to drive down to the village; instead, you park at the top of the cliff, and walk down an impossibly steep hill to a little harbour. It is a gem, and my wife and I used to go often, until recently.
My wife’s condition
More than two years ago, my wife had a series of severe heart attacks – the last one saw her die a number of times on the operating table, to be saved by Mr Owens and our wonderful NHS. During all this, however, her heart was permanently damaged – the echocardiogram reveals a figure of 43% efficiency.
By contrast, there is nothing wrong with her legs, which are as strong and agile as ever. She could run up the stairs at Whitby and they would not give out. What would give out, of course, would be her heart, which is significantly and measurably weaker than it used to be. In particular, she finds any kind of hill a problem and a worry.
In the first year after her illness, none of this was of any consequence – she was so weak as to be virtually housebound. Our first ‘walk out’ was to the nearest lamp post! But as she grew stronger – as she attended her rehabilitation classes – she grew more confident, and last summer we took a holiday.
It was then, of course, that we were confronted for the first time with accessibility problems. We could drive to Staithes and park up. She could manage the walk downhill into Staithes. But how could she get back up that hill to the car?
And what was especially and glaringly true for Staithes was true to a degree everywhere. She could walk without any trouble round the town centre, the shopping mall, the park – it was the trek to and from the car that was beyond her.
As a result she was still hugely dependent on me. Wherever we went, I had to run back and forth between the venue and the car, dropping her off and picking her up.
“You need to apply for a Blue Badge”, I said to her. “It’s a human rights issue – you ought to have the same independent ease of access to these places as anyone else.”
Applying for a Blue Badge
The first hint we got that there would be a problem was the form, which seemed excessively pre-occupied with how far she could walk.
‘Unable to say’, she replied.
We have since been told that she should have said ‘less than 30 metres’; this would have entitled her automatically to a Blue Badge.
But it would have been a lie.
It is not just that my wife can walk much further than that on the flat or downhill. The simple truth is that we have never tested how far she can walk.
If you are unfortunate enough to have something wrong with your legs, it may well be that you can say how far you can walk before you have to stop, or before you fall over.
But when there is something, unseen, wrong with your heart, hidden inside your chest, the only way to find out how far you can walk would be to walk until you died … which we are not going to do, are we!
Consequently, reasonably quickly and efficiently, my wife found herself referred to an occupational therapist, a smiling young lady who listened very sympathetically to my wife’s explanation of her condition and situation, and then walked with her to the door.
In doing so, my wife failed her Blue Badge application.
Ultimately, it turns out, the Blue Badge is almost exclusively about how far a person can walk ‘without stopping, being in severe discomfort, or without help from another person’. Under 30 metres is automatic, 30-80 metres a person may be eligible … over 80 metres and you are INeligible.
The nature or degree of your disability is peripheral; it is all about how far you can walk.
What a nonsense!
So my wife failed to get a Blue Badge – it’s not the end of the world.
But (as anybody who reads this Another Rant blog will realise!) it raised a number of issues which need addressing.
The first one is financial.
How much money are we spending, day after day, for that pleasant young occupational therapist to sit and listen, for twenty minutes at a time, taking notes whilst people argue their case, after which she will no doubt have to write it all up as a report … when at the end of the day a Blue Badge application is not a matter for the judgement of a highly-skilled and well-paid professional, but is simply a numerical rule – 79 metres: yes; 81 metres: no.
The second one is practical.
I want to know who ever gets to use these Blue Badges, if none of them is able to walk more than 80 metres.
I am not talking about wheelchair users. To be honest, whilst I would never stop them getting a Blue Badge, once they are in their wheelchair, distance is not the mobility issue. They don’t need to be next to the supermarket entrance; once they are in their wheelchair, they can (and sometimes do) do a marathon.
No. I am talking about those people who experience such difficulty walking that they are unable to walk 80 metres ‘without stopping, being in severe discomfort, or without help from another person’.
80 metres is the equivalent of walking twice round a normal detached house.
So I ask again; who ever gets to use their Blue Badge?
The disabled parking bays at Manchester Piccadilly station are ‘100 metres from the station in the Broad Street car park’. So anyone who parks there using their Blue Badge is by definition unable to walk to the station they are designed to serve.
The disabled parking for Darlington Town Centre, I would guess, is at least 40 metres from the end of Northgate. Which means that any genuine Blue Badge holder will be able to park up, walk to the end of the road, look at the shops … but will then have to return to the car and go home, because they cannot walk more than 80 metres.
And what about the disabled bays outside supermarkets? Although they are often situated right next to the entrance, it strikes me that any Blue Badge holder who parks up there and then goes shopping automatically disqualifies themselves, because it is a damn sight further than 80 metres round a Tesco Extra.
The principle of the Blue Badge
Now I am aware that I am using exaggeration for effect, and I will simply delete any comments which suggest that I am having a go at existing Blue Badge holders – that is palpably nonsense.
What I AM criticising is the criterion for the Blue Badge, and its application, which defines walking distance as the ONLY criterion, and does not allow for different kinds of disability, and sets the maximum distance, ridiculously, at 80 metres.
For me, the issue goes to the heart of what I see as the PRINCIPLE of the Blue Badge, which is to give equal accessibility to people who would not otherwise have equality of access.
In which case, the Blue Badge criterion is aimed at entirely the wrong market.
As my hyperboles above have pointed out, if you genuinely cannot walk more than 80 metres, then a Blue Badge is of little use to you in many situations, because – unless you can park up outside the door and are literally just going into the shop or restaurant etc., – you will need to walk much further than 80 metres when you get there.
So the people who would gain most value from possessing a Blue Badge are those people who CAN walk ... anything up to half a mile, I would suggest.
My wife could enjoy walking round the cafés and shops of Staithes … but she is denied equality of access because she cannot walk back up that hill to the car park. What she needs is to be able to drive down into the village and park up, after which she will be fine on the flat.
Equally, my wife could have a lovely time walking round the Metro Centre. It is flat, smooth, and there are plenty seats where she could sit down and take a rest. As it is, however, she is denied access because, by the time she has parked up and walked to the shops the quarter of a mile from the nearest available normal parking space, she is barely able to walk back to the car.
Of course, my wife will gain access to all these places, because I will act as chauffeur and bag-carrier for her.
But that is just it, isn’t it. Because she will therefore be dependent upon me.
The Blue Badge rules have turned her from an independent, self-determining human being, into a dependent, reliant upon others for mobility … which I had thought the Blue Badge scheme was designed to prevent.